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The Great War’s Great Indian Soldiers

by Shrabani Basu
Minhaj Ahmed Rafi

Minhaj Ahmed Rafi

Of the 11 Victoria Crosses awarded to Indian soldiers for World War I, three went to men from what is now Pakistan. This is their story.

The Indian memorial room—with its impressive chandelier, and crests, medals and memorabilia of the Colonial-era Indian Army—at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, is where gentlemen-cadets have their formal banquets, under the watch of figures on the blue and pink stained-glass windows that depict soldiers from the Indian subcontinent, men who fought and died for Britain in World War I and World War II.

Of the 11 Victoria Crosses, Britain’s highest military honor, awarded to Indian soldiers for the Great War, three went to men from what is now Pakistan.

The portraits of two of them are on display in the grand room at Sandhurst, hallowed ground for the British Army. Hal Bevan-Petman’s portrait of Sepoy Khudadad Khan, the first South Asian and Muslim to be awarded the Victoria Cross, shows the 50-something turbaned Pathan in his British military uniform, gallantry medals pinned on his chest. And Jemadar Mir Dast’s portrait by his colleague Lt. Col. Olaf E. B. Macleod shows the young soldier in the dark blue uniform of his regiment. For his gallantry in Mesopotamia, Naik Shahamad Khan became the third ‘Pakistani’ to be awarded the Victoria Cross on April 13, 1916.

From 1914 to 1918, some 1.5 million Indian soldiers—the largest volunteer army from any of the colonies, and more than the combined armies of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales—went to battle for Britain in World War I. An estimated 72,000 of them died or went missing (official figures from London put the total at 64,459) and countless others were wounded. Just as the Great War forever changed the world, many of the Indian soldiers who survived were never the same again. These soldiers fought in all the theaters of war, from the Western front—where they helped hold the line in Ypres Salient—to the Eastern front, where they prevented the Turks and Germans from accessing the Suez Canal and let the British retain control of the oilfields of Basra.

Last year, to mark the centenary of the start of World War I, the British government issued 11 bronze plaques with the names of 175 foreign soldiers. One of these plaques bears the names of the three Victoria Cross holders from Pakistan. On Nov. 10, 2014, this plaque was presented to the government of Pakistan for permanent display in Islamabad. Speaking on the occasion, Philip Barton, Britain’s high-commissioner to Pakistan, said “We should remember the sacrifices made a century ago that helped shape our present world. People from different nations came together to uphold our way of life. Pakistan and the U.K. share deep and lasting ties of history and friendship; these ties are the bedrock of the strong relationship we have today.” Sepoy Khudadad Khan’s grandsons attended the event.

The long journey of Indian soldiers to the foreign battlefields of Europe was linked to the series of events that unfolded thousands of miles away from their homeland in the Punjab in the summer of 1914.

It all started when the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenburg, arrived in Sarajevo on June 28. Ferdinand, as inspector-general of the Forces of the Empire, was to inspect a military parade in the city. The royal pair sat in an open-top car and drove through the streets of Sarajevo past cheering crowds. Unbeknownst to them, a team of six Serbian nationalists—part of a group called the Black Hand—was spread across the route with a plan for their assassination.

The first bomb was thrown at their car as it passed the Miljacka River. But the would-be assassin, Nedel Cabrinovitch, missed. The bomb exploded behind the royal car, injuring the occupants of the car following it. Cabrinovitch jumped in the river to escape the furious crowds but was pulled out and beaten. The royal car sped toward Town Hall. The shaken archduke continued with his program and made his speech, reading it from a bloodstained paper rescued from the damaged car. After the function, he decided to visit the injured at hospital—giving his assassins a second chance.

Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old high-school student who was part of the Black Hand, had ducked into a café after the first, failed assassination attempt. He walked out to find to his surprise that the royal car, with its occupants in full view, was directly in front of him. Princip fired three shots. He did not miss. Two bullets hit Ferdinand, in his neck and leg, and the third struck Sophie in the abdomen. The car sped off. By the time it reached Governor’s House, the duchess was dead. The archduke died a few seconds later. News of the assassinations spread like wildfire. By evening, the city was rioting.

Within days, the countries of Europe were engaged in frantic diplomacy to avert a crisis while simultaneously ordering mobilization of troops. Germany was aligned with Austria, while Serbia and Russia were natural allies. England stood at the margins, the king trying to persuade the kaiser of Germany and the tsar of Russia, his cousins, to manage the situation. But the powder keg of the Balkans had been ignited.

On July 28, Austria declared war against Serbia. On Aug. 1, Germany declared war against Russia. Britain, standing on the sidelines, was committed to Belgian independence under the Treaty of London. On Aug. 3, Germany invaded Belgium and declared war on France. By midnight the British deadline for the withdrawal of German troops from Belgium fell on deaf ears, and Britain entered the war against Germany.

On Aug. 8, Indian troops were given orders to mobilize. The Indian Army was the only standing army from the colonies trained for war. The Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders were not ready and would arrive much later. Two infantry divisions—from Lahore and Meerut—were ordered to head for Europe. The Indian soldiers had seen action in Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), but this was the first time they would fight shoulder to shoulder with their English colleagues in the West. The mood was euphoric.

Sepoy Khudadad Khan—whose family had moved from the NWFP and settled in the Punjab—was born in 1887 in Dab, Chakwal. He enlisted in the Army for regular pay and a chance to win honor and glory. Khan was among the first Indian soldiers to board ships from Karachi and Bombay for the frontlines of World War I.

The troops arrived in Marseilles, France, in September 1914. After a few days in camp, Khan’s regiment was sent north to Belgium. In October, Khan’s regiment was among the first to enter the trenches near Ypres. The British Expeditionary Force was exhausted and it was the job of the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Balochis to hold the line and prevent the Germans from reaching the ports of Boulogne in France and Nieuwpoort in Belgium. If the 129th Balochis failed, the Germans would choke off supplies to the British troops and the Allies could lose the war.

The Indian soldiers had never faced such appalling conditions. Used to hand-to-hand fighting with guns and bayonets in the NWFP, they were now thrown into the shallow, waterlogged trenches to face the full might of the German Army in an underground war. The Indians, outnumbered 5 to 1, did not have enough barbed wire to make their defenses; so there were many places German snipers could come right through. The Indians also complained they could not see the Germans in the trenches. Never before had the Indian soldiers seen the sight of hundreds of bodies being blown to bits, from the hellfire raining down from the sky. The Germans also had an endless stock of artillery; the Indians barely any hand-grenades. Yet they carried on, improvising with homemade bombs in jam jars.

On the morning of Oct. 30, the Germans began bombarding the Indian lines with howitzer guns. The company commander of the 129th Balochis was killed. Most of the Indians were pushed back. But Khudadad Khan’s machine-gun team, along with another, fought on. Soon, a shell killed everyone on the other gun team. One by one, the members of Khan’s team were also taken out by bullets or bayonets. Alone, Khan continued firing until he was hit and collapsed. As the Germans overran the trenches, he played dead. Once they had gone, an injured Khan crawled back to his regiment.

The 129th Balochis and 26-year-old Khan had done their job. They had held up the Germans long enough for Indian and British reinforcements to arrive. These additional troops prevented the Germans from breaking through and reaching the vital ports. On Jan. 25, 1915, King George V decorated Khan at Buckingham Palace. The Daily Mirror ran Khan’s picture on its front-page. “The First Indian to win the Victoria Cross,” read the headline. “This is Sepoy Khudadad of the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Baluchis. He was the first Indian soldier to win the coveted honor of the ‘V.C.’ through gallantry on the field of battle. He worked a gun singlehanded although wounded. All his comrades were killed,” noted the caption.

Khan remained with the Army after World War I, being promoted to Subedar in December 1929. After leaving the regular forces, he settled in the Punjab. But he made several visits to Britain in connection with the Victoria Cross and participated in the Victoria Cross Centenary Review parade in Hyde Park in London on June 26, 1956. Khan died on March 8, 1971, in Pakistan and was buried in his village in Chakwal. There is a statue of him at the entrance to the Pakistan Army Museum in Rawalpindi.

Brookwood, where many Indian soldiers are buried. Courtesy of the author.

Brookwood, where many Indian soldiers are buried. Courtesy of the author.

Born in Maidan, Tirah, on Dec. 3, 1874, Jemadar Mir Dast was an Afridi Pathan who had enlisted in the 1st Regiment of the Punjab Infantry at the age of 20. The regiment was renamed as the 55th Coke’s Rifles (Frontier Force) in 1903. Dast saw action in the NWFP and Waziristan. For bravery during the 1908 Mohmand expeditions, he received the Indian Order of Merit, Third Class. He was promoted to the rank of Jemadar—the lowest commissioned rank—and was already experienced in battle when his regiment was mobilized for World War I.

In France, Dast was attached to the 57th Wilde’s Rifles (Frontier Force) and he played a minor role at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. A few weeks later, he would take part in the most important battle of his life, at Ypres.

On April 22, the Germans started a deadly phase of the war in Belgium: at the Second Battle of Ypres, they released a large cloud of deadly chlorine gas, catching the Allies unaware. The French colonials bore the first brunt of the gas attacks, their eyes watering and their stomachs churning with the poison. There was mayhem in the ranks and a real danger that Ypres could fall.

The Lahore Division was ordered to Ypres to reinforce the gap. On the night of April 24, they made a grueling march north from Neuve Chapelle along rutted and cracked roads and cobbles made slippery by rain. On April 26, the Lahore Division was ordered to counterattack in conjunction with the French. Dast was in the center of the Ferozepore Brigade’s frontline. They were constantly being bombarded by artillery. By afternoon, a large cloud of chlorine gas drifted straight over the trenches where Wilde’s were positioned. The soldiers had no gas masks, but they had been warned about the gas and dipped the ends of their turbans in chloride of lime and tied them over their mouths. It provided little protection. Soon the soldiers began tumbling to the ground.

Dast did not give up. As he started to recover from the immediate effects of the gas, he rallied the few remaining survivors and held the position. When he was ordered to retire at nightfall, he took to safety some other men he had found sheltering in the trenches. He risked his life and carried eight British and Indian officers, who would otherwise have died from their wounds, to safety in the Allied positions. Dast was wounded a second time while saving his colleagues, but carried on nevertheless.

King George V decorated Dast with the Victoria Cross on the lawns of Brighton Pavilion in August 1915. The king asked Dast if he had any special request. Dast replied: “When a man has once been wounded, it is not well to take him back again to the trenches. For no good work will be done by his hand, but he will spoil others also.”

Dast never quite recovered from the effects of the gas attack. In his letters, he described how the gas—“dhua”—had given him no rest. “It has done for me,” wrote the brave Pathan. In 1916, Dast was awarded the Order of British India, Second Class, allowing him to assume the title of Bahadur (Hindi for hero or champion), making him one of India’s most decorated soldiers. In view of his ill health, Dast was removed from the Indian Army’s active service list in 1917. He died on Jan. 19, 1945, in Shagi Landi Kyan, Peshawar, at age 70.

(Mir Mast, Dast’s brother, also fought in the Great War as part of the 58th Vaughan Rifles (Frontier Force). On March 4, 1915, Mast and 20 other Muslim Pathans defected to the Germans, who were allied with Ottoman Turkey, which had just entered the war and was considered the spiritual home of Muslims.)

By the end of 1915, after a harsh winter in the trenches, the skeleton of the infantry divisions at the Western front were moved to the Eastern front in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Palestine, Basra and Gallipoli. Conditions at the Western front had been bad. In the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa, they were worse.

It was in the harsh desert conditions of Mesopotamia that 36-year-old Naik Shahamad Khan of the 89th Punjabis was to make his mark. On the night of April 12, 1916, the Rawalpindi native was put in charge of a machine-gun section at Beit Ayeesa some 150 yards from the enemy’s position. After all his men, apart from two belt-fillers, had become casualties, Shahamad worked the gun singlehanded, repelling three counterattacks. Under heavy fire, he continued to hold the gap for three hours. When his gun was disabled by enemy fire, Shahamad and the two belt-fillers continued to hold the ground with their rifles until they were ordered to retire. Along with the three men who were sent to his assistance, he brought back to his own lines his gun, ammunition, and a severely wounded man. Eventually he returned to remove all remaining arms and equipment, except for two shovels. Had it not been for Shahamad, the line would have been breached by the enemy. He died on July 28, 1947, at 68.

The story of the Great War’s Indian soldiers has largely been forgotten. Many of them are buried in the flatlands of France and Belgium and at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. Their graves are looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Britain’s former senior minister of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs, led the initiative for the bronze memorial plaques commemorating the overseas Victoria Cross awardees from 11 different countries. This she did to “ensure that people of all backgrounds and of all generations learn about the courage and heroism of their forefathers a hundred years ago.”

As Britain rolls out numerous commemorative events straight through 2018, which will mark the centenary of World War I’s end, it is important that the brave Indians who fought for freedom—against all odds and in harsh, alien lands—are duly remembered and celebrated.

Basu’s book on Indian soldiers in World War I will be published this year. She spoke at the 2014 Lahore Literary Festival (LLF). From our Feb. 14-28, 2015, issue.

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Patricia Roberts (nee Lennon) March 3, 2015 - 7:19 pm

My grandFather died in 1915 I believe. I have no idea where and why as my father passed away over 40 years ago. I know he was a chief gunner and I have a postcard with him on with the guns. I would just to like to know more. He was born in Rangoon as was my father. His surname was Lennon and signed his mail from Hughie. He seems to have travelled well judging by the postcards he sent my grandmother. Where do I start to look your help would be much appreciated.

alamgir khan April 11, 2015 - 1:09 pm

I am Alamgir khan Afridi grandson of subedar Mir Dast Afridi victoria cross hero WW1, Email alamgir_khan55@yahoo.com contact 0092+3459395208

Fiaz Khan May 5, 2015 - 12:10 pm

Mir Dast’s brother, Mir Mast defected to the Germans and won the Iron Cross. This is a unique instance where brothers won the highest gallantry awards on both sides in a World War.

Nisar ahmad June 3, 2018 - 1:53 am

I am nisar ahmad afridi and grandson of Jumedar Zargeer khan. I am searching a couple of months about my grandfather briitish militery details about him but not found.We lost all of his documents..
So strongly request to british militery for giving information about him and to email me on this adress.
+92 3339194375


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